Thoughts on Interoperability, Innovation and Health Care

Tux's "Thoughts on Competition, Innovation, and Interoperability" led me to review once again the subject of interoperability and innovation in the context of health care ( here is my previous post on innovation and no, I am not trying to latch this post to the news buzz words of the week here).
Tux explains that:

" competition is not necessarily intrinsically good, or an end in itself [..] competition-driven innovations have led to cheaper phones, better features, and a great deal of choice for U.S. consumers. [..] but it come at a cost to interoperability, amongst other things as firms are driven to “earn revenues (via upgrades) from [their] own installed base"

Tux's concerns over interoperability and stability are critically important in the field of health care information technology, especially in resource-limited settings. Many global health experts think that mobile information technology must play an important role in trying to make up for the lack of health care centers and care givers in developing countries. Critical information about various infectious diseases can be collected or distributed at low cost over great distances thanks to the boom in cell phone penetration. To allow for the possibility of information sharing to the widest range of mobile phone services, a fast-growing initiative for open source health technology has taken place also arguing that innovation can be pushed forward through a sort of communal barn-raising effort.

The open source initiative has the clear advantage of spurring innovation that are not tied to companies. In turn, open source innovation considerably lower the costs of producing new products, making them instantly disruptive to the market when usable to the masses (as you know, "user-friendliness" is not very often associated with open source softwares).

Low cost innovation is advantageous everywhere but it becomes a matter of life and death when viewed from the perspective of a developing region. Cost is often the difference between getting information to where it is the most needed.
Understanding that there is a need for innovation that is specifically catered to the need of resource-limited settings has reached the ears of big pharma company, usually thought of as the industry the least likely to embrace open source projects.

GlaxoSmithKline is one of them and CEO Andrew Witty recently announced the onset of a strategy whose objective is to “Break Down Barriers to Innovation and Access to Medicines in the Developing World.” One subset of the project is called the “Open Lab” initiative: 60 scientists from around the world will be able to work at this lab, which will be devoted to research for drugs that target diseases of the developing world. The other subset of the project stipulates that the chemical structures and other recorded data regarding these compounds found in their labs will be open sourced, in hopes that malaria vaccine research will be accelerated. Other drug companies, Merck, Johnson & Johnson , and Gilead Sciences have come forward in support of the idea.

The point is, there is room for innovation that is driven by something other that just the bottom-line. Let's not be naive, we are talking about for profit companies who would not consider such initiatives if it did not provide some sort of incentives. However, the recognition of an urgent global health challenge and the determination that there is room for innovation and profits that did not require stringent intellectual property enforcement is an important breakthrough. We can only hope that in the future we can frame policies that encourage companies to explore such options more frequently. Additionally, reduction of health care costs through innovation geared towards lowering costs ought to be pursued in the United States as well. The heated debate over health care reform and the graph below on health care spending in the US compared to the rest of the word indicate that it is still a pressing issue and that information technology combined with a centralized system, as seen in the Taiwanese heath system, may help curb down those pesky health care costs.
healthcare costs
(Health care costs per country via http://good.is)

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